Action hero not riding into the sunset
Ma Wing-shing, creator of The Storm Riders, wants to put life back into the local comics industry
At the crowded opening of The Birth of a Hero exhibition, Ma Wing-shing, the local comic artist featured in the show, was mobbed by hundreds of guests - from government officials to industry veterans and press.
They were applauding his success and admiring his creative journey that is on show at Comix Home Base, the heritage building that's been turned into a creative space between Mallory Street and Burrows Street in Wan Chai.
It was in stark contrast with the old times.
"When I first started, Hong Kong comics were deemed violent and vulgar," says Ma, reclining in a single-seat sofa in his spacious office in Quarry Bay, pondering the contrast between then and now.
"It has taken 30 years to change society's perception."
Ma's unique brand of illustrations telling stories of the martial arts underworld from The Chinese Hero to The Storm Riders have mesmerised a couple of generations of Hongkongers.
Over that time, he says, the comics have slowly changed people's perceptions.
"Those who grew up with [our works] are now in their 40s or 50s. Many of our readers are now professionals or even school headmasters. They understand that Hong Kong comics are not toxic, and so they won't discourage their children from reading them," says the 52-year-old.
"The government's attitude has changed too, recognising Hong Kong comics as part of local culture, a kind of simple cultural and creative industry that can be initiated by individual artists as opposed to film and animation productions, which are costly and labour-intensive," he says.
Ironically, despite improving public perception, the market is shrinking.
"Now it's not about developing a new market. There isn't even a market now," Ma says.
It is estimated that the number of weekly comics fell from the peak of 50 in the 1990s to about 20 today.
Hong Kong comics were a lucrative business when Ma achieved his fame. Studies show that their annual retail sales in 1990 reached about HK$17.9 million. Jademan Comics, founded by Tony Wong Yuk-long, was listed on the stock exchange in 1986.
Despite the frequent display of coarse language and depiction of sex and violence, scholars agreed that these comics were important cultural products.
In recent years the government has shown support for comics through its industry agency CreateHK. Last year, the Avenue of Comic Stars was opened in Kowloon to woo fans.
It features 24 figures that are up to three metres tall of classic Hong Kong comic characters and has sponsorship of HK$1.5 million to HK$2 million of taxpayers' money.
In July this year, the grade II historic Green House was revitalised as the HK$200 million Comix Home Base, dedicated to the culture of comics and operated by the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
The city has a long history of comics, evolving from political illustrations from early in the last century to the second world war period, then to the manhua serials in the 1950s to 1960s which were popular with the post-war baby boomers who were in need of reading material for children.
Old Master Q by Alfonso Wong Kar-hei, who published the title under pen name Wong Chak (his eldest son's name), and 13-Dot Cartoons by Lee Wai-chun were among the best-selling works in the 1960s.
The trend was then overtaken by a new martial arts genre in the 1970s under the influence of kung fu films and the popularity of Bruce Lee. Wong's series such as Siulauman in 1970 fitted the bill at the time but was criticised for its violence and vulgarity.
Ma, a disciple of Wong, took things further with his realist style of drawings in The Chinese Hero that was often compared to the work of Japanese manga artist Ryoichi Ikegami, creator of crime thriller Crying Freeman.
First published in 1982 as a supplement to Wong's Drunken Fist, The Chinese Hero was recognised as a breakthrough in Hong Kong comics. Its popularity encouraged Ma to turn it into an independent series the following year. It sold 40,000 copies a week.
"I only wanted to show my creativity through my works," Ma recalls.
He started drawing when he was a teenager, earning just HK$150 a month. "A box of bean curd stick and fatty pork rice cost only HK$2 to $3 back then. I spent every penny at the end of the month, and I worked overnight in the office all the time. But I was very happy back then."
Ma left Wong in 1988 and in 1989 founded Tin Ha Publishing, publishing Tin Ha Pictorials, featuring The Storm Rider, which was adapted into a movie starring Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, martial arts hero Bo Ging-wan and Ekin Cheng as his comrade Nip Fung. Its overwhelming popularity has kept the series going, probably until next year.
But the end of the long-running series is in sight.
"If I keep drawing, I will disappoint my fans," Ma says.
"I've been in this business for almost 40 years. Long series always have a market, but do I have to do it my whole life? Maybe there's another story in my life. It's time to let go."
He began planning to conclude the fantasy series about the underworld of martial arts four years ago.
" The Storm Riders is the most profitable [title], and giving it up is very difficult for the company," he says.
The first thing he had to do, says Ma, was to stop expanding so that the ending of The Storm Riders would not be a severe blow to the company, which now has about 30 people.
The series will be put out monthly before it all comes to an end in the next 10 to 12 months.
But Ma is not going to cut his ties with the comics world. He wants to become a freelancer and begin writing stories without the need to worry about the market.
He is also venturing into animation. Together with partners from Hong Kong, he is betting on an animation and merchandising project on the mainland. They have pooled 30 million yuan (HK$37.8 million) and hope to help revive Hong Kong's comics industry, which has reached a dead end in the market.
Before the series - of which Ma was reluctant to disclose details - goes to air in Beijing and Shanghai in mid-September, a range of toys and props will be manufactured based on market studies and will be ready for sale when the series hits the screen.
"This is a whole chain of production. Hong Kong is difficult because the comics industry is part of a broken chain," Ma says.
Ma, who is often reported in the media as a wise property investor, says that although his project is costly, chasing after a dream isn't.
"Creative people can live a simple life happily because they have hope. But today's young people don't have any hope except for buying a property," he says. "We need to give them more upward mobility."